The misbegotten notion of John Wayne playing a Mongol leader is enough to make you shout "Stop! Jinx!" So bad that it makes your insides squirm, this picture would be a forgettable blip in the Cowboy's canon except for its sobering true-life lesson on the dangers of radiation. More than any 1950s sci-fi movie, "The Conqueror" validated a generation's anxiety over the bomb when 91 out of the 220 people who worked on location in Utah were diagnosed with cancer. Forty-six died of the disease, among them its stars John Wayne, Susan Haywood, and Agnes Moorehead, as well as director Howard Hughes. The Straight Dope also chronicles a black panther attack, a flash flood, and devastating 120-degree heat, but 13 weeks sucking in the radiation clouds drifting from nearby Yucca Flats, Nevada, (where 11 atomic bombs had been tested) make this indeed an unnerving curse. This might also account for Hughes' mental downfall: He yanked "The Conqueror" from the public view and reportedly watched it over and over in his last days.
Photo by RKO Radio Pictures Mar 6, 2013
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